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2nd Star Productions’ The Lion in Winter

Think your family is dysfunctional? You’ve not seen The Lion in Winter.

The Lion in Winter, now playing at 2nd Star Productions, is a masterful, gleeful verbal chess game. The players are intense because the fate of a nation and a family dynasty are at stake in this game of ever-changing checkmates.
    It is Christmas 1183 at King Henry II’s castle in Chignon, France. To celebrate the occasion, Henry has released his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, for the holidays. Their three sons — Richard, Geoffrey and John — all want to be named as heir to Henry’s throne. Henry’s favorite is John; Eleanor’s favorite is Richard.
    Then there is Alais, betrothed many years back to John but now Henry’s mistress. Alais’ brother, Philip, King of France, comes to the holiday festivities demanding that either Alais’ betrothal be honored or Henry return her dowry. The scene is set and the fireworks begin.
    Fred Nelson, well known for playing King Henry VIII at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, takes the proper attitude in romping through this role as Henry II. At one point Henry chastises Philip about how to argue with him, saying “use all your voices,” as Nelson himself does expertly. He is by turns pompous, gentle, demanding, cajoling, loving, hateful. He is always crafty and looking for the advantage in every argument and tactic. Nelson turns in a well-modulated, charismatic performance.
    To make The Lion in Winter crackle, Henry and Eleanor must be equally matched adversaries who, astonishing as it seems, actually love each other. Heather Tuckfield doesn’t reach that goal. This role demands a wider range of emotions — the glee mingled with sadness of this abandoned queen — than Tuckfield shows. Neither do you see her gears shift when she is outmaneuvered and has to come up with a new strategy. A distractingly out-of-period hairstyle and dress don’t help.
    The distinctive personalities of the three sons are etched well. Dean Davis as the soldier and brave man of action, Richard Lionheart, is a son who deeply wants his father’s attention. Davis conveys the longing, hurt and confusion of his role.
    Jimmy Heyworth, as second son, Geoffrey, is the quietest of the family. He is the son who has learned the most from his family’s in-fighting tactics, and Heyworth shows him as the one watching, waiting for his opportunity.
    Zak Zeeks captures the nuances of the sniveling, cruel and whiny last son, John. His is the least likable of the characters, but Zeeks interestingly portrays him as a soul who had no chance to be any different, given the family he grew up in.
    Tanya Davis is a strong Alais, but she could be even stronger in her final scene when she unexpectedly turns the tables on Henry. She, too, has learned well from this family.
    Mark Allen as Philip proves a formidable opponent to Henry and does use all his voices very well.
    Director Charles Maloney has an inventive set and keeps the action believable and the momentum progressing.
    In this Christmas family gathering gone awry, the lead opponents are not equally matched, and that weakens the roar.

    Written by James Goldman. Direction by Charles Maloney. Set design by Jane B. Wingard. Stage management by Joanne D. Wilson. Lighting design by Garrett Hyde. Costumes by Linda Swann.
    Showing thru March 10 at 8pm FSa; 3pm Su and March 10 at Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park, Rt. 3, Bowie. $20; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndStarProductions.com.